Football: Stephen: Together Standing Tall, We'll Answer Ireland's Call; UEFA EURO 2008 Austria-Switzerland QUALIFIERS: Rep. Ireland V Wales, Croke Park 3.00 MIDFIELDER DEMANDS PLAYERS START PRODUCING
Byline: Michael Scully CHIEF SPORTS WRITER
STEPHEN Ireland insists it is time for the players in Steve Staunton's squad to stand up and be counted - starting with the clash with Wales at Croke Park today.
The talented Manchester City midfielder sat before the assembled media in the the bowels of Croker's Cusack Stand, and admitted that the level of performance under fledgling boss Staunton has been a major letdown.
Roy Keane was in Dublin earlier in the week to pontificate on all things Ireland - and his talk of standards was a reminder of how brutally self-critical he could be when he arrived on international duty.
There's more than a bit of Keane in 20-year-old Ireland, and not just because they both sought to make their name in the game in Manchester.
That self-same desire to be the best, and to self-analyse in order to be the best he can be, is clearly also present in the little playmaker.
Keane hails from Mayfield and Ireland from Cobh, so his presence at the pre-match press conference alongside Steve Staunton might have been a little publicity stunt on the FAI's behalf, designed to highlight the ludicrous nature of Keane's claim that there is an anti-Cork bias within the association.
Colin Doyle, the Birmingham City keeper, also hails from Cork so with Keane moaning about Liam Miller's absence from this Ireland squad for today's clash with Wales, the first question thrown Ireland's way was an obvious one.
So, Stephen, do you feel discriminated against? "No, not at all," he smiled, before desperately getting off the subject.
"Everyone is excited to play - I'm very excited to play. It's a massive occasion, our first time here in the stadium. We all know what we have to achieve and that we have to work hard, so it's a massive game for us.
"Everyone is very excited because it's a great stadium and if it is full tomorrow for the game, the atmosphere is going to be unbelievable. We have a big squad and only 11 can play for us but every squad member is important with two games coming up."
The interesting stuff came after that. Having made his debut as a substitute in the 3-0 defeat of Sweden last March - the high point of Staunton's reign to date - Ireland started in his next outing, the Euro 2008 qualification disaster that was Cyprus in October.
He scored in that game, but otherwise it passed him by. Not just him, to be fair, but Ireland's midfield went missing in Nicosia.
Staunton kept faith with the youngster against San Marino last month and he was repaid with the last-minute goal that saved his precarious career as national team manager.
"It was a relief, to be honest," said Ireland. "I didn't actually realise how important it was until after the game.
"It was actually a tougher game that you would think. Every game is a cup final from now on and that's the way international football is, as that match showed.
"But we got the three points and that was really important. Hopefully now we can carry on in this game.
"It was very hard to break them down. They regrouped well and we didn't really put away our chances. When the ball fell to me in the box and I scored, it was just a massive relief. Luckily we took the points."
Have the players talked about the problems that have dogged their recent performances? "Of course, yeah," he replied.
"We all have to work hard for each other - we all have to put in the hard graft and plenty of communication. …